By Ed McNamara
Modern Games wasn’t hurt, but the veterinarians standing nearby didn’t realize that. While his stablemate, Albahr, was flipping over in the stall next to him, an assistant starter wisely opened the front door to Modern Games’ stall to prevent Albahr from injuring him. Jockey William Buick jogged Modern Games out for 40 yards or so, then stopped. The colt was fine.
Albahr was scratched from the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, and fortunately he and jockey Frankie Dettori were all right. Then it got weird and infuriating as darkness fell Friday at Del Mar on Day 1 of the 38th Breeders’ Cup.
Two veterinarians behind the starting gate assumed Modern Games had broken through on his own. Chuck Jenkins and Dana Stead should have checked with the gate crew about that, but they didn’t. This is known as a sin of omission.
Modern Games was scratched before a veterinary exam discovered no injuries, which led to his being allowed to run, but for purse money only. He rallied to win, but all bets on the horse who would have been the 2-1 favorite had to be refunded, making runner-up Tiz the Bomb the winner and enraging everybody who had bet on Modern Games.
“The horse was taken out of the wagering pools when it was racing sound,” California Horse Racing Board executive director Scott Chaney said. “The [message] was radioed up to the stewards, who took the horse out.”
And once the scratch was made, there was no going back. The rules are clear: Even if a horse is inadvertently scratched, that’s it, and instantly a series of bet-processing protocols automatically refund all wagers on it.
Curtis Lindell is vice president of wagering analysis and operations for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau. “Once a horse is scratched, it’s impossible to undo that,” he told drf.com Saturday morning. “That’s why everybody has to be very careful to not scratch a horse on a mistake.”
Being very careful is always the way to go, especially when millions of dollars are on the line. Yet with the racing world watching, carelessness and cluelessness reigned supreme. It was the ultimate unforced error, and it didn’t have to happen. It was a disgrace to horse racing if there can be such a thing.
My friend Pete was alive for a $3,300 pick 6 payoff if Modern Games won, and he ended up with nothing. It was ultimate heartbreak for a horseplayer, to get it all right and have everything go wrong. Even when you win, you lose. I had $20 on Modern Games, but compared to Pete’s pain, mine was nothing. If that had happened to me, the spike in blood pressure might have made my head explode.
Even after Modern Games was removed from the pari-mutuel equation, Pete still had a chance to hit the pick 6. He also had Dubawi Legend on his ticket, and whenever there’s a late scratch, those wagers are switched to the favorite. Thanks to the debacle, Pete ended up with Dakota Gold, but he cringed as that horse and Dubawi Legend plodded home fifth and 10th, respectively, and Modern Games came surging wide to score by 1 1/2 lengths.
I salute Pete for not snapping and hurling a shoe at our mutual friend Joel’s big-screen TV. He didn’t even say any bad words. I felt terrible for him because he had endured another historically horrific beat. He had a significant wager in the 2019 Kentucky Derby on Maximum Security, the race’s only first-place finisher ever disqualified for an on-track violation.
“That really hurt, but at least the stewards made the right call,” Pete said. “But this …”
As a disgusted Pete got ready to leave, he said, “After this, I’m never going to bet on another horse race.”
Joel played the straight man, and with a smile said, “Until tomorrow, right?”
Pete grimaced and said, “Yeah.”
No matter what, horseplayers never quit.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.